When I first laid eyes on the ultra-violent Soldier of Fortune (SoF) last spring I thought to myself, "Well, that job in the games industry sure was fun." I couldn't believe that someone was actually creating a shooter that was so realistically brutal, especially in light of the numerous debates over video games and violence that had begun to spring up in reaction to recent youth shootings. Creating a game like SoF took a lot of guts (no pun intended...okay, a little pun intended), and the title was so over-the-top that Activision decided to ship two versions of the game: one with full gore and a more "sensitive" edition with no blood or chunks. There's no doubt that SoF is the most horrific, bloodiest, and goriest games I've ever played, and although I'm not into perverse ultra-violence, this game really is a lot of fun. But before I go any further with the praise, let me go ahead and say that Soldier of Fortune is NOT for the kids. Like Raven says in the intro, "This game is for mature audiences only."
SoF is a semi-realistic shooter, treading the line between games like Rogue Spear and Quake II. With fast thrills and big kills, it plays and feels a lot like a pure-action shooter, but the weapon damage is much more akin to realistic shooters such as SWAT 3 and the Rainbow Six series. SoF also goes one step further to capture the cinematic spirit of shooters like Half-Life. Now it's not quite as in-depth as Half-Life, but you do feel as if you're playing the lead role in an action movie, and every aspect from the high-energy soundtrack to the first-class visuals come together to help accomplish that goal.
Another way the dev team pushed the cinematic feel of SoF lies in the game's tempo. It has some of the best pacing that I've ever experienced in a shooter, something I really hadn't really paid that much attention to in previous FPS titles. SoF combines the perfect blend of scripted sequences and impressive in-game cutscenes between the furious action. By obtaining this nearly perfect balance Raven has made it so you never get tired of the action, but you never feel drawn out of the intensity of the situations either.
Sure, it's a shooter, but SoF also has a story to back the action up. We covered the backstory in our SoF preview, so I'm not going to go into again here, but needless to say it offers something that most action shooters don't...a plot. Following its cinematic feel, the game keeps the story moving through the use of the aforementioned impressive in-game cutscenes. But even though you don't control the action while the story unfolds, you never really feel taken out of the game since the action flows into and out of these cutscenes so fluidly.
Soldier of Fortune is built on the Quake II engine, but it's totally unrecognizable in its current form. The designers have only taken the core skeleton of the engine and added their own bits of meat to build one of the most impressive single player shooters I've played in a long time, and from the look of things, will be playing for quite a long time. One of the key components of the updated SoF engine is the GHOUL model rendering engine. Not only does GHOUL produce some of the most realistic looking character models out there, but it also incorporates 26 gore zones on the character models to make for the most realistically disgusting ballistic wounds you've ever laid your eyes on. All of this is extremely disturbing and extremely intriguing at the same time since this is the first time this type of damage model has been used in a shooter, and it ads an eerie yet sickly-satisfying effect to every landed shot. Now a head shoot may yield a nauseating red spray while a shot to the leg with a large caliber gun may rip the appendage from the torso. Gory indeed, but impressive technology to boot.
In addition to an excellent character modeling system, SoF features clever level design and layout. The location feels extremely realistic and authentic. Although for the most part the levels are linear and keep you on a straight path to the finish, you will find a slew of neat and creative twists in every level. Whether it be riding atop a speeding train, infilitrating a high-tech Japanese corporation, or trudging through a frozen Russian base in Siberia, you feel like you're in a real-world location. And graphically, these locales couldn't be much better. The environments are a bit square and the textures aren't up to Quake III quality, but everything is well detailed and, as I've mentioned before, the character skins are to die for.
One of the things that impressed me most about SoF (and that's a tall order since I have a long list of things I like about this game) was the game's stability and the fact that it looked good on almost every video card combination I tried it on.
Of course, no shooter review is complete without a look at the arsenal, so how does SoF stack up against the competition? Well, it has its highs and lows. While there are a few futuristic weapons in the game like the Microwave Pulse gun and the heavy-hitting slug thrower, the core of the game revolves around good-ol' bullet lobbers. You have your small and large caliber pistols, your trusty shotgun, your sub-machine gun (both a suppressed and non-suppressed version), your sniper rifle, and your extremely versatile heavy machine gun...plus a Rambo-esque combat knife to boot. Of this list, the shotgun and heavy machine were my favorite. The shotgun tears people apart at close range, and the heavy machine gun can do the same thing from a distance, plus it spits out phosphorous grenades which can cause some nasty burns. Some parts of SoF encourage you to creep through a bit more stealthily than most other shooters, but I found the best way to go through SoF was with gun a-blazin'. There's a noise meter which is similar to the one in Thief. If you make too much noise, more enemies will come after you. However, I found this just encouragement to make more noise with my heavy machine gun and it didn't slow me down much or make me worry about making too much of a hullabaloo.
In addition to the weapon loadout, there are numerous power-ups scattered around each level. In keeping check with the realistic feel of the game, you won't find any speed enhancements or quad damage boosts. The power-ups in SoF are limited to grenades, C4, armor, flash paks, and the familiar health pack (okay, so bundles of health aren't so realistic...think of them as adrenaline). They are basically just a way for you to live longer as an unarmored John Mullins is a bloody John Mullins, or gives you a means to gib your opponents easier with a well-placed explosive charge.
The sound in SoF is simply amazing, and the designers did a great job of utilizing positional sound in the game to give you cues as to where your foes may be hiding. I was also really impressed by the soundtrack in SoF. The rising scales of the music fits in perfectly with the mood of the game, and the sound team did a great job of keeping the music in the background where it belongs, using it to accent the on-screen action rather than detracting from it. It's this attention to detail on the sound effects and music in the game which really add to the realistic and immersive feel of this title, as well as adding a little extra tension into the mix.
Sure, the single player experience is great, but what about multiplay? Well, Raven didn't let us down there, either. First off, I was very impressed at how easy it was to get into a game. Although you'll be playing over WON.net, everything you'll need to access outside servers is built right into the game engine, so you'll hardly notice you're even using a service. I was also impressed with how stable the multiplay was and how many people were already online waiting to play. This means you won't be searching for a game for hours until you can finally get down into some multiplay action.
There are an impressive number of characters, 50 to be exact, split over six different factions. SoF features five different multiplay styles, but most revolve around the deathmatch model. You'll find:
Standard DM: You know, run around and shoot anything that moves.
Realistic DM: Where one head shot can mean instant death and you have to manually reload your weapon. You'll also have to worry about fatigue in realistic DM mode as running around too much will quickly tire your character out.
Arsenal: You have to take out one enemy with one of each the computer-assigned weapon.
Assassin: One of the favorite game types around the office. Assassin is kind of like tag where you're assigned a particular enemy to kill, and someone is hunting you as well. If you kill a bystander, you lose a point, if you kill the person assigned to hunt you it's worth one point, and if you nab the person you have been assigned you receive a whooping three points. Be careful, though, as the better you get, the more people are assigned to assassinate you.
Capture the Flag: Standard CTF, which really isn't that much fun considering it's pretty easy to cap someone in SoF.
For the most part, lag isn't that bad in the game, at least no worse than any other shooter over the Internet. Of course, if you have an old school modem you're going to want to play with less people to reduce your lag, but I found playing with up to 16 people on a DSL connection to be pure butter most of the time, with only occasional laggy burps.
So all in all SoF ranked pretty highly with me and the rest of the crew here at IGNPC. There are a few things that I didn't like about SoF, but they were just minor flaws in an otherwise near-perfect game. As a Soldier of Fortune, you're obviously in it for the money, but the money you get for "services rendered" doesn't play a part in the game. It's basically just a score you can use to compare how well you did against others in the single-player game. Another problem is that the AI is a bit disappointing in spots. Sometimes you'll be shooting at an enemy and another guy standing certainly within earshot and sometimes even within eyeshot will totally ignore his buddy getting minced into ground chuck. But that's about it, really. There's not much not to like about this game, and if you've got the stomach to handle the violence, then you'll be extremely happy with SoF. It's solid, it plays well, multiplay is fast and furious, and the cinematic feel is something I hope to see in more shooters in the future.
As you've already figured out, we liked SoF a lot...a whole lot. Soldier of Fortune is definitely going to change the way we think about fast-paced shooters in the future and it's nice to see Raven back on the right track since we were mildly disappointed with Heretic II. A big warning though: keep Soldier of Fortune out of the hands of the kids. This game is not for children, repeat NOT FOR CHILDREN, and I wouldn't even recommend it to anyone under 17. And even if you are an adult, some of the graphic depictions in the game may be too much to handle for some.
People who downloaded Soldier of Fortune have also downloaded:
Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix, Soldier of Fortune: Payback, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, No One Lives Forever, Quake 2, No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Max Payne
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